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BW Businessworld

We As A Country Are Holding Behind Almost One Half Of Our Potential: Sangita Reddy, FICCI President

In an exclusive interview with Madhumita Chakraborty of BW Businessworld Dr Reddy talks about FICCI & FLO 's Tthe Greater 50% initiative and her conviction about the need to empower women more to achieve that goal of an economically vibrant India.

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In 2007 the Hyderabad chapter of the FICCI Ladies Organisation (FLO) chose Sangita Reddy, President, FICCI, for its award for a leader who had contributed to ‘Women Power and Entrepreneurship’. Dr Reddy though is more widely recognised as a powerful influencer for healthcare and has been drawing attention to the sector through both industry fora and at international platforms like the World Economic Forum and the World Health Congress.

She has since won a plethora of awards and accolades for the initiatives she has taken to expand the outreach of healthcare services to the underserved and to remote locations. Apollo Reach for instance, aims to build a string of secondary care hospitals in rural India and Apollo Knowledge strives to create healthcare human capital for the morrow. As the third woman President of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), she recently launched the ‘Empowering the Greater 50 %’ initiative with FLO, supported robustly by the Union government. 

In an exclusive interview with Madhumita Chakraborty of BW Businessworld Dr Reddy talks about the initiative and her conviction about the need to empower women more to achieve that goal of an economically vibrant India. 

The FICCI Ladies Organistion (FLO) was established in 1983 to promote entrepreneurship and professional excellence among women, almost three decades before FICCI had a woman professional at its helm. FICCI’s first woman president, Naina Lal Kidwai, initiated the FLO affiliation with the Women Corporate Director (WCD) and you have now re-energised FLO again with the ‘Empowering the Greater 50 %’ initiative. What really inspired the project?
Women constitute about half of India’s population, but their contribution to the nation’s economy has not changed for years and has in fact gone down in recent times. We cannot afford to have a lopsided growth structure where a good half of the population is not fully integrated into the economy. A solid foundation for a New India cannot be built without women having an integral role in it. In fact, women have time and again proved that they are ‘Atma nirbhar’ and are the backbone of not only their families, but the entire society. Women deserve equal opportunities.
FICCI has been at the forefront of inclusive development and has always recognised the importance of the encouragement our women need to successfully contribute to the country’s GDP. With that in mind, FICCI FLO was established way back in 1983.

We felt the need to constantly reaffirm our faith and enthuse fresh ideas, hence the idea of ‘Empowering the Greater 50% initiative’ was born with the vision of enabling women’s inclusion at every level of the economy and enterprise as well as to augment the ongoing Women Empowerment movement in India.

The initiative targets to make an impact on the lives of a lakh women over the next three years. The programme is designed to enhance entrepreneurial and decision-making skills through engagements such as mentorship programmes, access to finance, business accelerators, training women to get into boards, special guidance to marginalised women on a business framework and financial models etc.

At the Webinar with the Union Minister for Women and Child Development, Smriti Irani, to launch ‘Empowering the Greater 50%’ programme, you said increasing women’s participation in the workforce by 10 per cent could translate into India’s GDP growing by another $70 billion. Would you like to elaborate on this view?

The number is just an attempt to recognise the huge potential resource that the country has been missing on. By integrating women more solidly into the mainstream formal economy, not only will we bring about a significant change in their own lives, but we will be able to push the country’s growth frontier forward by a huge leap.

This is just one telling data point and there are other notable numbers which bring about the existing gaps glaringly. Women make up 48 per cent of the Indian population but India has only 27 per cent women in the workforce at present (which is down from being about 35 per cent in 2004).

A recent report on Women entrepreneurship in India states that of the approximately 432 million working-age women in India, about 343 million are not in paid formal work.  An estimated 324 million of these women are not in the labour force; and another 19 million are in the labour force but not employed. Women’s labour force participation rate (LFPR) in India, already among the lowest in the world, continues to decline. By 2030, India’s working-age population will surpass an unprecedented one billion, and up to 400 million women’s economic potential may be left unaddressed. (Source: Bain & Company and Google)

All these numbers need to be reflected on more seriously. We as a country are holding behind almost one half of our potential. Thus, raising women’s participation in the workforce can definitely act as a catalyst for economic growth and inclusive nation building.

Moreover, India ranked 112 out of 153 countries in the latest Gender Gap Report 2020 by the World Economic Forum ‒ marking a slip of four ranks from the 108th position in 2018. However, what is also noteworthy from the report is the performance of Nordic countries on gender parity indicators. The top ten ranks feature four Nordic countries (Iceland ‒ first, Norway ‒ second, Finland ‒ third and Sweden ‒ fourth).

These countries have been frontrunners on gender equality and have significantly high female labour force participation rates - which has allowed them to make substantial gains in terms of economic growth. In fact, an OECD report suggests that in Denmark, Iceland, Norway and   Sweden, increases in women employment account for about 0.25-0.40 percentage points of the annual GDP per capita growth rate since the mid-1960s and early 1970s.

The FLO National President, Jahnabi Phookan, spoke of impacting the lives of a lakh women within the first 18 months of launching the initiative. What kind of projections is this target based on?
The target is of impacting lives of a lakh women over the next three years. As I mentioned before, this will be achieved through robust mechanisms of mentorship, resource mobilisation and strategic partnerships. The FLO for example, already works with a lot of women entrepreneurs. FICCI also has a Diversity and Inclusion Task Force, which focusses on workplace inclusion of women. The Greater 50 initiative will help identify skilling and training needs of women, provide them with guidance to access finance, connect them to accelerator funds, mentor them through a diverse pool of mentors in not only setting up enterprises, but providing market linkages, scale up their business, inspire young women to take up jobs, complete their education, help aspire women to become leaders in the corporate world, provide mental health counselling etc.

When we speak of one lakh women, it is not just the working women but also homemakers who will be made aware of their rights, will be provided financial literacy skills which will help boost their confidence and provide them with the ability to contribute towards economic decision making of their families. Grassroot level women will be provided with awareness on basic hygiene and health and access to sanitation etc.

We will also reach out to our target women through institutional tie ups with organisations such as UN Women, Great Place to Work, Micro Mentors, TiE, Rotary etc.

Here the aim is to make systemic changes so that women’s inclusion is lasting and sustainable.

‘Empowering the Greater 50%’ proposes to be a joint initiative of the government and the private sector. What exactly will be the role of the government in this venture?

The Minister of Women and Child Development, Ms Smriti Irani, has extended her full support to the programme. Apart from synchronising our efforts with that of the Ministry’s we will also rope in all state governments to bring benefits of the government schemes to women registered under this programme, establish projects in PPP mode etc. and recommend policy changes. The Women and Child Development Minister spoke of using funds earmarked for self-help groups under the Rs 20 lakh crore stimulus package for the FICCI-FLO initiative.

 Do you propose to encourage the private sector too to contribute funds to this project?
Yes, private sector funds will be tapped through donations, grants, CSR funds etc. FICCI instituted the First CSR awards in the country way back in 1999. A number of corporates who apply for these awards are already supporting women empowerment programmes through their CSR funding. FICCI through the CSR network of its members, will tap such programmes to bring it under the fold of the ‘Empowering the Greater 50 initiative’. International Private Donor foundations with a gender focus will also be tapped to find support for this programme.

At the grassroots level the FLO already has skilling programmes for women since 2014 and has since 2019 expanded its ambit to bring in women in agriculture. Will the new initiatives run parallel to these programmes?   
While we will try to bring in all existing initiatives of FICCI and FICCI FLO working towards women empowerment under the ‘Empowering the Greater 50 initiative’, there may be some programmes which may run parallel but in synergy with the overarching objectives of the Greater 50.                                                                
Do you as a woman leader really believe that the policy and legal initiatives taken in our country to give equal berth to the ‘Greater 50%’ in business, politics (33 per cent reservation for women in Parliament) and in the corporate space (inducting women directors into the boardroom) have gone beyond sloganeering? After all leaders like you, Ms Jyotsna Suri or Ms Naina Lal Kidwai, have been able to break through the glass ceiling despite the system and not because of it.
Yes, I would like to believe that rights of women have gone beyond sloganeering. But we still have a very long way to go to get equal rights not only in letter but in spirit of not just our male counterparts but also of our women which is why mass awareness programmes for behavioural and attitudinal change of both women and men is required. It will not be an overnight change but through this initiative we will try to make that change in a steady and structured manner through well curated campaigns.

This article was first published in the print issue of (25 June- 09 July) BW Businessworld. Click Here to Subscribe to BW Businessworld magazine.

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